2022 Playoffs: East First Round Heat (1) vs. Hawks (8)

Series preview: Stingy Heat look to stifle Hawks' firepower

Trae Young looks like his big-stage self heading into the postseason, but top-seeded Miami's defense looms as a large deterrent.

Jimmy Butler and the Heat are eager to back up their No. 1 seed with a deep postseason run.

Heat-Hawks series coverage
• 2022 NBA playoffs schedule

One team wants to tap into the mojo it had in last postseason’s surprising run all the way to the conference finals. The other would prefer to skip over its most recent playoff experience, reaching instead back to the Orlando bubble edition when it reached the Finals and pushed the eventual champion Lakers to six games.

Only 10 games separated the Heat from the Hawks in the East standings, but their path to this matchup was entirely different. Miami snagged the No. 1 seed and waited a week for its opponent. Atlanta had to climb from ninth place by beating Charlotte and Cleveland in The Play-In Tournament, then hurry down to south Florida.

Miami won three of the four meetings during the season, and poses the same problems now as it did then: excellent shooting to stretch thin the Hawks’ defense and tenacious, switching defense that will challenge Trae Young whether he’s shooting or passing. The Heat wants to put behind it the sweep by Milwaukee last year and punch a Finals ticket again.

Atlanta could be missing both center Clint Capela and forward John Collins in the series, so role players Bogdan Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter will need to keep up with the likes of Jimmy Butler and Kia Sixth Man favorite Tyler Herro as much as possible.

Inside the NBA looks at the Hawks' injuries and Miami's ceiling.

3 Things to Watch

1. Trae Young making more friends: Last postseason, the Hawks’ bomb-throwing guard took on New York fans. At Cleveland on Friday, he had a few gestures and looks for the folks in Cleveland. Now it is the Miami crowd’s turn to give and get with Atlanta’s lightning rod. The Heat will play a big role, of course: Young scored 32 of his 38 points against the Cavs in the second half. In fact, he scored or assisted on 43 of his team’s 56 points after halftime, more than Cleveland managed (40). Kyle Lowry’s defense (including drawing those infernal charges) will be tested. The guy on whom Atlanta leans for both scoring and playmaking responded like few others, becoming only the second man in NBA history to lead the league in total points and assists (Nate Archibald did it in 1972-73).

2. Capela’s right knee will be a storyline: The Atlanta center took the worst of it when he hard-fouled Cleveland’s Evan Mobley in the second quarter Friday night. Mobley crashed backward into Capela’s right knee, at least hyperextending it and ending his night. The Hawks were awaiting an MRI result to update his status, but the Heat have to feel double-lucky. Instead of having to cope with the Cavaliers’ superior size, Miami might not even have to deal with Atlanta’s best big. Backup Onyeka Okongwu stands 6-foot-8 while 32-year-old Gorgui Dieng averaged 8.4 minutes this season. Also, power forward John Collins has been out since March 11 with foot and finger injuries.

3. Pace isn’t everything: With both Atlanta and Miami ranking among the slower teams in pace this season, this might feel like a series set up to watch paint dry. Not so, as they each have notable offensive calling cards. The Heat led the NBA in 3-point percentage (37.9) at the same time they were clamping down on the other guys from downtown (33.9). The Hawks ranked second in offensive rating and had a league-high seven players average at least 10 points while playing in 50 or more games.

Number to Know

12.5 — According to Synergy play-type tracking, the Heat allowed just 12.5 points per game from pick-and-roll ball-handlers this season. That was the league’s second lowest mark, higher than only that of the Toronto Raptors (11.8). Though he missed 26 games, Bam Adebayo switched 93 more ball-screens (636) than any other player in the league, according to Second Spectrum tracking. That flattened out opposing offenses and forced those pick-and-roll ball-handlers to give up the ball or play in isolation.

Trae Young has led the league in pick-and-roll ball-handler points per game in each of the last two seasons, averaging 13.6 (1.2 more than any other player and 1.1 more than Heat allowed) this season. He had 15 in Miami on April 8, but most of those came against defenders not named Adebayo. In fact, when Adebayo switched an initial screen for Young, the Hawks’ point guard often asked for an additional screen to get another defender on him.

Additional screens, of course, get the Hawks playing late in the shot clock. Miami opponents averaged 15.1 seconds per possession, the league’s highest opponent mark, this season. This is a matchup of the league’s second-ranked offense and its fourth-ranked defense, and that battle begins with ball-screens for Trae Young, who the Hawks choose to put in that action, and how that screen is defended.

— John Schuhmann

The pick

The last No. 1 seed in the East to reach the Finals was Cleveland in 2017. And Atlanta knocked off last year’s No. 1, Philadelphia. So the Hawks have that going for them … and not much else in this clash. Miami has too many shooters, a versatile defensive stopper in Bam Adebayo and loftier ambitions this spring. There are reasons, too, why the Hawks didn’t build on their playoff run in ’21, including a defensive decline. Heat in 5.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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